by Cara Blouin, director of Angel Street (Gaslight)
I first learned about Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight while working on another play Casablanca by Gaslight, a one-woman show in the Philadelphia SoLow festival created by Lena Barnard and Meredith Sonnen. Their piece reflected Meredith’s experiences working in the traditionally male field of construction. As she worked to build physical environments, her male colleagues used a different kind of tool to build an alienating working environment that made her doubt her competence and expertise. One of those tools was gaslighting.
The abusive tactic of causing someone to question their own experiences is painfully relevant in this moment. In a political world where stories hold more sway than facts, what we are told about ourselves impacts every facet of our lives. The political is personal, and it’s easy for many of us to identify with Bella, who believes that she is losing her mind. Although Bella is certain that she hasn’t played any pranks on her husband, he is so confident and his power is so absolute that she accepts what he tells her and asks only for tolerance and mercy in her madness.
Even for those who have never been gaslit by a romantic partner, most women can identify with being dismissed as too emotional, too sensitive or blowing things out of proportion when they report their feelings and experiences. It’s incredible that this play, written 80 years ago, captures a feeling so relevant today. I also find the story heartening.
In our production of Gaslight, the arrival of Detective Rough, who is able to corroborate Bella’s true experience is the antidote to her self doubt. To be seen, heard and understood makes it possible for Bella to trust her judgement and make her choice. In the same way, when Hamilton lays the tactic bare he allows us to recognize and reject it. It’s the power of this story, and all stories, that when they corroborate our experience, they set us free.